#5: Django Unchained:
I’m going to make a statement sure to spark some controversy among my friend group: Django Unchained is the best film Quentin Tarantino has ever made. Whereas Pulp Fiction represents the writer-director as a youthful force to be reckoned with, with its disjointed narrative structure, extended “cool guy” monologues, and general influence on the filmmaking landscape of the 1990s, Django is Tarantino at his most refined as a filmmaker. The story is the most straightforward and linear of any Tarantino script, the character motivations are real, true and easy to understand, and the direction does not cave to some of his more indulgent behaviors.
My main gripe with Tarantino’s previous film, Inglourious Basterds, was not its example of “revisionist history,” but that it revised history so extensively. I mean, they kill Hitler and end WWII. In Django, Tarantino wisely tells a much smaller tale: its title character, a freed slave, does not end the institution of slavery, but he brings emancipation to a few select people in his circle, and in this way, becomes a relatable hero.
Tarantino also provides us with some unexpected moments of gravitas amid the gleeful manipulation of genre tropes and anachronisms: Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” plays, and we hear the words, “…and I carry it with my like my Daddy did.” At the same moment, Django is presented with his very own saddle, brandished with his first initial. It’s an incredibly touching moment: here is a slave, a man whose humanity was stripped form him, whose name was not handed down but was forced upon him, now able to establish that name as a free man.
The performances, as with most Tarantino films, are excellent: Christoph Waltz, in particular, steals the show quietly from his scene-chewing peers Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson. Waltz’s character, King Schultz, may also be one of the few Tarantino characters who both begins and ends the film as a totally decent person committed to real morals. As a screenwriter, Tarantino’s greatest strength here is his restraint: he’s smart enough to know what can be joked about and what can’t when it comes to the horrors of the Antebellum South, and he shows maturity in presenting even some of the vilest characters as people to be taken seriously (except, of course, for those buffoonish KKK members).
This most terrifying film I saw in 2014, Whiplash remains a haunting and unsettling piece of cinema. Its ending, praised not just for its technical merits, but as a triumphant, inspiring, and uplifting conclusion, is sorely misunderstood. At the heart of this film is the question, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is an aspiring drummer at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, where every jazz musician is aspiring to be selected for Terence Fletcher’s (an imposing J.K. Simmons) studio band. Andrew is no different: he idolizes jazz greats like Buddy Rich and toils away in lesser school bands, longing for his chance to prove his worth to Fletcher at whatever personal or moral cost. Fletcher is sadistic in his methods, often citing a story about Charlie Parker having a cymbal thrown at his head by Jo Jones, and Parker’s subsequent growth into one of the greats as a result of the embarrassment. Fletcher sees his role as having to “push people beyond what’s expected of them,” and his extreme lengths take Andrew to his physical and mental breaking points.
At the film’s conclusion, Andrew overcomes Fletcher’s deliberate on-stage sabotage, unleashing a ferocious and groundbreaking drum solo that instantly connects teacher and pupil in a transcendental experience. In that moment, Andrew refuses to leave his recital and put Fletcher’s betrayal behind or beneath him. We see one last image of Andrew’s father shrinking away from the stage doors, horrified at the transformation he’s just seen in his son, unable to recognize what Andrew is becoming. The message of the film is twofold:
1) Fletcher’s method “worked,” but does that make it the right method? Did the ends justify the means?
2) From Andrew’s perspective, is it worth it? To be “great,” is it worth losing one’s soul? Did the means justify the ends?
#3: Birdman or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
I’ll never understand why Birdman became a movie accused of “pretention,” but Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was not accused of the same. Birdman turned the 2014-15 awards season on its head, pulling ahead of critical darling Boyhood and eventually winning the Best Picture Oscar. This is significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the Academy’s general aversion to rewarding comedies, let alone hard-bitten, cynical satires.
Make no mistake: Birdman is a comedy, and often a very funny one. Michael Keaton (playing a meta version of himself) and Edward Norton (doing the same) fist fighting in their underwear borders on farcical, and it’s a sight to behold.
Speaking of sights to behold, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is stunning, getting within mere inches of actors’ faces, capturing such minute details and subtleties in the performances that it’s unlike any film you’ve seen.
Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a mentally unstable former movie star whose on-screen superhero persona, Birdman, haunts him in more ways than one. The specter of his cartoony films looms over his efforts to adapt a serious Raymond Carver production for Broadway, where critics are waiting to revile him. What’s more, he’s hearing voices—specifically, the voice of Birdman. The triumph of director Alejandro G. Inarritu is in adding to the mystery of it all: it appears to us as though Riggan actually has the superpowers that Birdman had. Is Riggan a superhero among us, or are we as the audience watching his own delusions and hallucinations?
Birdman has a lot to say, about the nature of criticism, the effects of age on a career, the appreciation of art, and whether we misdiagnose the unstable as the “brilliant.”